The Child You Didn't Dream Of

By Gilman, Priscilla | Newsweek, April 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Child You Didn't Dream Of

Gilman, Priscilla, Newsweek

Byline: Priscilla Gilman

Benjamin faced many problems. His mom tells how he brought her peace of mind

After a quick hello, the admissions director got right to business: "We have some concerns about how Benjamin did at his visit," she said. "Really?" I replied. "We thought he did well. He had a good time." She paused. "No. He didn't do well."

"What was the problem?" I asked. After some pausing and sighing, she finally came out with: "He seemed fixated on the magnetic letters and numbers. He didn't answer the teachers' questions appropriately or respond to the other children. We think he might do better in another school setting."

I was polite while the conversation lasted, but I hung up the phone dismayed and a bit angry. How could that woman, that school--one that prided itself on a joyful, progressive approach to learning--not see Benj for the amazing, original, bright little boy he was? According to my husband, Richard, at the screening 21/2-year-old Benj had in fact taken the magnetic letters and spelled out "Benjamin," "flapjack," and "Friday." He'd then arranged the numbers in sequence from one to 10, calling out each one in an excited voice while beaming up into the teacher's face. So what if he didn't say "hello" or respond to the teacher's offer of crayons? Sharing his enthusiasm about the alphabet and numbers was his way of being friendly. And if he hadn't been as responsive to the other children as he could have been, there were plenty of good explanations for that. He'd just gotten out of the car after a two-hour ride into Manhattan. He hadn't eaten lunch or had a drink since he left home. He'd never been in a room filled with strange children before. How dare those teachers demand sunny normalcy from him? He wasn't a normal child. He was Benj, and if they didn't want him, then I certainly didn't want them.

But I wasn't only angry. I was also deeply worried. So after a day of lamenting the nursery school's inability to accept my son, I began to realize that the concerns the admissions director described had resonated with me. I typed some phrases about early reading and trouble answering questions into Google, and the first thing that came up was the American Hyperlexia Association's website. I read breathlessly about a syndrome I had never heard of, whose symptoms--precocious reading, an intense fascination with letters or numbers, difficulty in socializing and interacting appropriately with people--matched up so precisely with Benjamin that I was thunderstruck.

The website suggested that kids with hyperlexia composed an extremely small subset of kids with high-functioning autism or Asperger's. I'd thought of autistic kids as kids who flapped their hands, banged their heads against walls, and never spoke or smiled. Benj had made eye contact, he was very smiley, happy, and responsive; he'd laughed at us frequently and chattered gaily throughout the day. Why would we ever have suspected this?

Because he was so verbal--he talked all the time in an animated and expressive way and had a huge vocabulary--we hadn't worried much about his speech or his ability to communicate. There had always been an explanation for the lack of social exchange. A rationalization. An excuse. "He's not interested in small talk; he wants to cut to the chase." "He's just like his father: he'd rather read than chitchat." I read on, and realized that Benj had never used gestures to express his desires and feelings: no waving, no pointing, no shaking his head no, or nodding yes. I ran through all of Benj's language in my head. He'd developed single words precociously, at a little under a year, started speaking in many two-word phrases at age 2, right on schedule, and now was speaking in longer sentences, just as the parenting books had said he should.

But the more I read, the more I realized that most of Benj's spoken language was actually echolalia (repeating or echoing other people's language rather than creating spontaneous sentences). …

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